Why Japan’s Dads Need to Take Paternity Leave

If more fathers in Japan take their paternity leave, it could help the country's waning population and struggling economy.

Japan's notoriously stressful corporate culture has led to increasing work-induced depression and in some cases, workers committing suicide. Last year, a 24 year-old woman jumped to her death from her company dormitory, which the Tokyo Labor Bureau investigators ruled as karoshi, meaning death from overwork.

Japan is also facing a population decline and the country's workforce is shrinking along with it.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made labor reform in his country a top priority. For example, he's proposed giving more men access to paternity leave as a way to help women go back to their jobs after giving birth.

Currently, Japan has some of the most progressive parental leave laws of any developed nation. Many fathers are able to take up to a year off work and retain 60 percent of their salary. But few do. In 2014, only 2.3 percent of men who were eligible used their paternity leave.

Working long hours helped make Japan an economic superpower, but the result is that companies consistently put pressure on employees to work overtime. Employees are in constant competition with co-workers to be seen as loyal and dedicated.

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"Japan has a very strong ideal worker ideology," Eunmi Mun, Ph.D, professor of sociology at University of Illinois, and co-author of Workplace Matters: The Use of Parental Leave Policy in Japan, told Seeker. "Taking leave is definitely a violation of that work culture and ideology. Another aspect is the very strong gender ideology in Japan. There's a very clear gender division of labor, so men do not really have a function in the household. Their function is basically the breadwinning function, so they really have to focus on earning money in that kind of gender culture," she said.

A Japanese nonprofit called Service Grant Japan started the Mama Bono program three years ago to help more mothers return to work after maternity leave.

"Women often take leave of a year or more, which handicaps women's careers," Mama Bono staff member Naomi Kashio, who is also a mother of two and a participant in the program, told Seeker. The Mama Bono program aims to make the transition back to work as smooth as possible for moms, by training them on how to reintegrate into office life and developing a work style that allows them to be both a parent and a professional.

While Mama Bono doesn't directly encourage men to take paternity leave, they do agree that it would make it easier for women to get back into the workforce. "If more men take paternity leave, it would be a big help for women, of course," said Kashio. "The parental leave period men take is mostly a few weeks or a few months."

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"In Japan, the biological mom takes cares of the baby at least for the first three years," Mun said. "That makes it really hard for Japanese women who want to have both a career and maintain their own identity as moms. The workplace requires long working hours, full commitment, [and] at the same time becoming a mom is also really highly demanding." In Japan, hiring a nanny is extremely rare.

Mun explained that long work hours became the norm during the post-WWII reconstruction period. "Before the war, Japanese women actually worked a lot more and the gender division was less drastic," Mun said. "It was [the] post-war economic development period when the division of labor became one of the most important pieces to maintain the workforce."

That sentiment has carried over to Japan's present day work culture. "The Japanese workplace is very much gender divided, partly because women are the main caretakers," Mun said. "So women get... only peripheral jobs that do not have any promotional opportunities, and that was almost formally established during the post-war period time."

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According to Mun, it's difficult in Japan to discuss work-life balance because the current system succeeded during the post-war period. "The limitations of this system have been detrimental but without having a new model it's kind of hard for them to leave the current system towards somewhere else," Mun said.

She points out that as cultural norms shift in Japan, men likely want to be more involved in childcare, but they may not be in a position to actually do so.